At first glance you might think the front door of this old house was dressed up for the holidays — bright red cloth tucked in an aluminum frame, Velcro straps, a little yellow window. But come closer and you’ll hear the motor of a giant fan in the window.
“What it does is it unlocks the secrets your home is hiding from you.” Charlie Rogers, with the company Habitat, is a specialist in secrets — energy secrets. In this house, a pressure-sensing computer hooked up to the fan is measuring the energy efficiency of the house after the owners installed a new gas furnace, added insulation in the attic and sealed major drafts.
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Rogers looks at the read-out on the computer. “It shows us where all the air leaks are. It won’t lie to us.” He turns the pressure up to get a more accurate reading. “Right now it’s saying its 3,000 cubic feet of air per minute.” Air leakage has been reduced by 18 percent. A solid improvement, says Rogers, but not fantastic. When money permits, insulating the exterior walls will reduce air leakage and stop heat loss even more.
This house is just one of a group of homeowners, hospitals, restaurants and low-income multifamily housing units taking advantage of a Seattle-based energy upgrade program called Community Power Works. Up and running since October 2011, the program began when the city won a $20 million grant from the Department of Energy. The money’s been used for utility rebates, loans and a one-stop-shop to make it easier for customers to find auditors and contractors.
Community Power Works' manager, Joshua Curtis, says there’s even money available for those who heat with oil and aren’t able to participate in utility rebates. “Say if someone wants to upgrade to a ductless heat pump, we’ll match a utility incentive. Or if you’re on oil and you want to transition off it’s a great opportunity right now.”
The statistics about energy upgrades made through the program to-date could be the lyrics to “The 12 Days of Christmas”: 900 single-family homes, 780 low-income multifamily units, 410,000 square feet of commercial property, 13 small restaurants and grocery stores, four major hospitals and 26 City of Seattle buildings.
Energy savings aren't the only part of the program gaining praise. Contractors who sign onto the program are required to sign a workforce agreement committing them to hire a certain number of women, minorities and veterans at family-wage jobs. “A lot of people didn’t think contractors would be interested in signing this and we have now 27 contractors," says Curtis. "They’re all scheduled out about three months. So [Community Power Works is] very busy and going well.”
On average, Curtis says, homeowners save about 30 percent on energy, though some save up to 80 percent. Fifty-nine thousand tons of greenhouse gas emissions have been eliminated from Puget Sound’s atmosphere; the equivalent of taking 10,480 cars off the roads for a year.
Of all the greenhouse gas-reducing schemes, energy upgrades are — by most accounts — the low-hanging fruit; especially in communities served by programs like Community Power Works. Transportation gets the most attention, says Eileen Quigley, program director of Climate Solutions' New Energy Cities, “[but] buildings are the largest contributor to climate change in the U.S.”
Fortunately, she says, the Northwest has multiple energy efficiency projects underway, including Homewise, Whatcom County's Community Energy Challenge, Thurston Energy, Repower Kitsap in Bremerton and Bainbridge Island and Oregon's Clean Energy Works. Federal grants have enabled a significant amount of experimentation to crack the nut of deep energy efficiency, says Quigley. “And at the end of the day we have hundreds of people trained in both how to design effective energy efficiency programs as well as all the contractors and folks in the field who actually get the work done.”
But reducing greenhouse gases isn’t the number one reason people choose to upgrade their homes, says Charlie Rogers, an auditor and energy specialist. More often it’s because they’re cold and uncomfortable with a strong desire to save money and get off oil rate.
Take Jen Bessler. Her family was among the first to take advantage of rebates through Community Power Works in 2011. Visit her home today and she’ll show off a new electric heat pump that replaced an old oil furnace. “It comes on a couple of hours before it needs to heat up so that helps with the efficiency of the unit.” Electric usage has gone up, but overall the family is saving energy.
Perhaps most importantly says Bessler, the kids aren’t fighting over the one warm spot in the kitchen anymore. Heat is spread evenly throughout the house. “For us it was a no brainer. We’re paying less than we paid before and now our house is comfortable and the heat is reliable. It’s cleaner, we’re using less energy and we’re feeling good about it.”
Community Power Works still has a lot of outreach to do to ensure more homes and businesses invest in energy upgrades and the current Department of Energy grant ends in September 2013. But they remain upbeat about finding new investment and are excited about partnering with the city’s next major energy upgrade — the Pacific Science Center.
Engineering by CJ Lazenby. From the studios of Jack Straw Productions.